A friend of mine was recently telling me about a situation in her practicum class where middle school girls were being verbally sexually harassed by a classmate and, much to the surprise of the faculty, were not speaking out about it. And even when they did, she told me, they did so in a way that the teachers had to work hard to understand what the real story was. The thought of anyone being harassed and not knowing how to verbalize what had happened to them baffled me. Didn’t those girls know what verbal harassment was? I realized that, as my friend had pointed out to me, not everyone has the power to communicate abuse.
In reflecting on this issue, I remembered that there had been occasions when a friend or I had been harassed in a place where we were supposed to feel encouraged to speak out on it, yet had not done so either. Even in places like school or work, where there are sexual harassment policies in place to protect us, why do we not utilize them?
One reason is vocabulary. Simply because a student has learned the term “harassment” or an employee has signed a declaration of their protection from it, does not indicate a complete understanding of the subject. Unless we are taught the words to describe what we have encountered, we cannot be expected to come forward. Learning the definition of harassment and what qualifies could make the difference between a victim thinking that they are just being teased and knowing that they are being harassed.
Another reason is circumstance. Women and girls especially are subjected to harassment in public almost all the time. Though there is legal protection (somewhat) easily available at school or work, we have little in the way of protection when walking down the street, in the grocery store, or at the mall. Seeing that street harassment is so often regarded as “no big deal,” and is infrequently validated as a problem, it can become easy to see all harassment this way. If we are trained to treat public harassment as something that comes with the territory of our gender, then it becomes difficult to differentiate between the harassment we can and can’t report.
A third reason is empowerment. Since we are young, girls are told that boys who tease and taunt them are “just being boys,” or worse, that they are doing so out of affection and to take it as a compliment. This attitude is pervasive, and often follows us to adulthood, where we learn to draw a parallel between unwanted playground attention and unwanted school and workplace attention. Unfortunately, we are frequently proven right as those in power often ignore or diminish complaints of sexual harassment, telling us loud and clear that speaking out will get us nowhere. Even women and girls who recognize harassment are often ashamed or afraid to come forward, out of suspicion that their claim will not be taken seriously or that they are somehow to blame for drawing unwanted attention.
Harassment is a serious and awful occurrence, but not one that we have to accept. By teaching our children that anything that makes them uncomfortable is enough to come forward about, acknowledging and fighting public harassment, and taking action when they have the courage to speak up, we can show them that they have the right and the power to stop harassment. And maybe we’ll show those responsible that they don’t have the right to start.